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U.S. cracks down on Iraq death squads

Prime minister al-Maliki heads to Washington for talks with Bush

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A wounded Iraqi waits for treatment Monday at a hospital in Samarra.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. commanders in Baghdad are focused on cracking down on Iraqi death squads responsible for killing hundreds of citizens in the capital in recent months, a military spokesman said Monday.

Most death squad killings appear to be sectarian, with Sunni Muslim gunmen targeting Shia neighborhoods, and Shiite attackers going after Sunnis. Victims are sometimes abducted by the dozens, their bodies often turning up later with signs of torture.

On Monday, three bodies were recovered across Baghdad. All had been shot in the head and showed signs of being brutalized.

Sunni leaders have accused Iraq's Shiite-dominated government of allowing gunmen from Shiite militias to infiltrate Iraq's police force, but U.S. troops have not found a "larger organization" behind the killings, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said.

"It appears it's very extremist elements from both sides out there operating, using murder and assassination as their means by which to further personal goals that they're trying to achieve," he said.

The latest push is "a top priority" of Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, Caldwell told reporters.

"It makes absolutely no difference what their religious sect is, what organizations they may claim to belong to. All we care about are those -- when we talk about death squads -- that are out conducting murders and assassinations."

The February bombing of the Askariya Mosque, a major Shiite Muslim shrine, in Samarra set off wave of communal violence that has pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Last week, at least 200 Iraqis were reported to be killed across the country. The United Nations estimates that at least 14,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first half of 2006.

The increased attention on securing Baghdad came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki headed to Washington for talks with President Bush on Tuesday. Al-Maliki's two-day visit to Washington comes on the heels of a stop in London, where he met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow declined Monday to give what he called "report cards" on Iraq's conditions since Bush's visit to Baghdad in June.

However, Snow acknowledged, "I think we realize that you've got some real work ahead in securing Baghdad," he said.

In a sign of progress, Iraqis were taking control of the southern province of Muthanna, near the Kuwaiti border, Snow said. "And there are several other provinces that are going to be under Iraqi control, they think, relatively soon," he added.

Meanwhile, in northern and western Iraq, U.S. troops continue to battle a persistent insurgency led mostly by Sunnis. Two American soldiers were reported dead in western Iraq's sprawling Anbar province Monday, bringing the U.S. death toll since the invasion of Iraq to 2,566.

Attacks persist against civilians

A string of three roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad killed one person and wounded six Monday morning, including two police and two Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi Emergency Police said.

Later, four mortars wounded eight civilians in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, police said.

In Taji, 20 miles north of Baghdad, armed men gunned down three Sunni Arabs, police said.

In Samarra, 100 kilometers north of the capital, a car bomb killed two civilians and wounded 17, including seven policemen, Reuters reported, quoting medical sources. The bomb was targeting a police patrol, the sources added.

Hussein hospitalized

As his trial resumed Monday, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was being treated in a hospital for the effects of his hunger strike, the chief prosecutor said.

Hussein was receiving nutrition through a feeding tube and was being monitored, the U.S. military said. He is continuing his hunger strike and his life is not in danger, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry.

Hussein's defense attorney has questioned whether the hunger strike was the real cause of the hospitalization, saying his client appeared to be in "very, very good health" Saturday.

Inside the court, Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief, Barzan Hassan, has asked Chief Judge Abdel Rahman for time to find new attorneys, since his private lawyers have boycotted the proceedings.

Like Hussein, Hassan also faces charges related to the killings of more than 140 people in the town of Dujail in 1982 after a failed assassination attempt against Hussein.

Rahman said Hassan's request seemed fine, but also blamed Hassan's lawyers, saying, "Your lawyers attended previous sessions. Their decision to not attend is for TV and publicity."

A court-appointed lawyer began closing arguments.

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report.

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